After leading a workshop on photo montage, Hillary Prag (center) watched in awe as youth from New Horizons Ministries designed and installed this montage called “Street Revolution” in a matter of hours. They sorted through hundreds of leftover prints from six months of photojournalism workshops to create this wall installation for the Triangle Art Gallery in downtown Seattle. Visit our Photography Gallery
SPU alum gives homeless teens a voice—through the lens of a camera
It’s 7 p.m., and a young artist named Jezebel is preparing for her first gallery show. She looks out at a crowd of art patrons sipping San Pellegrino and admiring her photography and collage at the downtown Seattle YMCA’s Triangle Gallery. The 18-year-old is poised and articulate as she describes the inspiration for her art and her plans for the future. By this time next year, she hopes to be taking university classes and working on her first book. That part isn’t surprising, but something else is: Jezebel slept under a bridge last night.
Jezebel is one of Hillary Prag’s many photography students, most of whom make their homes in Seattle’s dumpsters, alleys, and parks. Prag, who earned a degree in sociology from Seattle Pacific University in 2006, has a passion for photography—and for homeless youth. Where others saw troublemakers, she had a different view of the teens populating Seattle’s streets.
“These were artists dying to have some expression,” she explains. “I wanted to empower them to use their own innate resources to improve their lives.”
Prag applied for a grant from the Seattle Mayor’s Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs and petitioned the online photo developer Snapfish.com to provide free and discounted photo printing. They said “yes.”
Shortly after, she took her idea to Seattle’s New Horizon Ministries (NHM)—a nonprofit, interdenominational Christian organization that provides relational support, meals, clothing, and other emergency services to homeless youth—and its staff offered her a place on the calendar. “I was excited that someone would want to commit their time and resources to helping the youth explore the art of photography,” says NHM’s Life Discovery Coordinator Naomi Yonemura.
From October 2006 to March 2007, Prag offered photography workshops at NHM as well as Seattle Urban Academy, a street school in the Rainier Valley. Her class, called “Street Vision,” was an instant hit.
After a few lessons about composition, lighting, and camera technique, Prag distributed cameras and film and set her pupils loose. Their assignment? To document their lives on the street in the most authentic way possible.
The following week, she collected and developed the film. Prag took a look at some of the images while in her car. “I almost crashed — they were so moving,” she recalls. “It was life as they knew it, and it was nothing a professional photojournalist could have taken.”
The images that followed were often dark and chaotic: a group of young men sleeping in a dumpster, a city street lit from the glow of a drug pipe, a dead rat, the lonely view from below a skyscraper, and police patrolling Westlake Center. Yet humor, joy, and light dwelled in the images, too: a sunrise over Pike Place Market, a rainbow, and friends smiling. “Their lives are incredibly challenging,” explains Prag, but through the images, she says, “it’s like they’re saying, ‘I’ve been dealt a bad hand, but I’m still finding my way.”
“It was life as they knew it,
and it was nothing a professional photojournalist could have taken.”
— Hillary Prag
Prag beams with pride when she describes her students’ journeys. One teen transformed his life before the class ended. He moved home with his family, and even got a job. “I think it was partly to do with the fact that he had seen his life in 4-by-6-inch images each week,” she explains. “He saw his life in print, and he made changes.”
Not all the stories had happy endings. Perhaps most difficult for Prag, she says, was knowing that after class, many of her students would have to beg for dinner money and end up sleeping in an alley. “It was heart-wrenching to know that these kids were going to spend the night sleeping in recycle bins,” she says. But even if she couldn’t find the students homes, warm beds, and three meals a day, she gave them something else: a voice.
The class was so successful that she was able to recreate it in Boston during the summer of 2007, partnering with a local organization that serves homeless and street-involved youth.
“The kids found so much joy in finally having some expression,” says Prag. And with that came new hope, confidence, and a reason to keep plugging away at life — one photo at a time.
If you are interested in supporting the work of Street Vision and putting cameras in the hands of street-involved youth across the country, please contact Hillary Prag directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
By Sarah Jio
Read other Feature Stories
about SPU students and alums.